Acid test: LSD won’t make you crazy

Lysergic acid diethyla­mide has many names, and in SA it is ­classified as a schedule two narcotic, making it illegal to possess, use or distribute. It is also known as Microdots, candy, acid, A, tabs, trips and Hofmanns.

The drug, part of a group that includes magic mushrooms and peyote cactus, is considered to be the most powerful recreational hallucinogenic.

The South African Police Service says that the odourless, colourless substance causes "undesirable dependence". On its website, the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre says the side effects of psychedelics "include a predisposition to psychosis, exacerbation of depression and other mental illnesses".

However, a study of more than 130 000 random participants, 22 000 of whom had used psychedelics, found that there was no link between psychedelic drug use and mental health problems.

The findings by the team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's department of neuro­science were published in online medical journal PlosONE last week.

Researcher Teri Krebs and clinical psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen reviewed data from the 2001-2004 American National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in which participants were asked about their mental health – specifically psychological distress, psychosis, anxiety and mood disorders, as well as drug consumption.

"Lifetime use of LSD, psilocybin [magic mushrooms], mescaline [derived from a cactus] … or past-year use of LSD was not associated with a higher rate of mental health problems or with receiving mental health treatment," Johansen said.

When asked whether psychedelics unmasked underlying psychosis, Krebs told the Mail & Guardian: "This study had a retrospective, cross-sectional design, making it impossible to draw causal inferences. Many potentially important risk factors, such as family mental health history, were not available.

"Opposition to psychedelics 40-plus years ago seems to have been based on lack of information and cultural biases. Note: the use of psychedelics in medicine has never been banned."

Though LSD was first synthesised from a grain fungus in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, it rose to prominence in the 1960s. It was popularised by proponent Timothy Leary and featured prominently in popular culture, including in the Beatles' song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Psychedelic mushrooms and cacti have been used in many different cultural rituals for thousands of years.

"Other studies have found no evidence of health or social problems among people who had used psychedelics many times in legally protected ceremonies," Johansen said.

Krebs said: "Early speculation that psychedelics might lead to mental health problems was based on a small number of case reports and did not take into account either the widespread use of psychedelics or the not infrequent rate of mental health problems in the general population. Over the past 50 years, tens of millions of people have used psychedelics, and there is just not much evidence of long-term problems."

Cathy Karassellos of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre said: "We see very few people [who] abuse LSD … We see a lot of people who become psychotic from abuse [of] tic and marijuana, but we don't really see people with LSD."

The Medical Research Council has a drug and substance abuse unit, but one of its researchers told the M&G that "we do not do much work on the use of psychedelics, which is pretty rare in South Africa".

Interest in the medicinal uses of psychedelics is growing. It is thought that they can treat or ameliorate the symptoms of clinical depression, alcoholism and terminal illness.

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